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Rare Indo-Portuguese Colonial Crocodile Tooth Snuff Flask in the form of a Mestiza Woman, with Engraved Silver Mounts

Indo-Portuguese, possibly Goa, India
late 17th century

height: 9cm, weight: 40g



UK art market

This rare snuff bottle comprises a hollow crocodile tooth, finely carved, and with engraved, high-grade silver mounts. The tooth has been carved into the form of a mestiza woman of Goa. As such it provides important contemporary evidence as to the dress styles among Goan mestizos of the time.

She wears her hair piled high on her head, long at the sides and then bunched at the nape of her neck and tied with a ribbon. In her right hand she holds a small hat. She wears a long, double-layered dress: the upper layer is pleated and the under-layer is decorated with short stripes. The sleeves are short, slightly puffed and edged with ruffles. The neckline, with a double layer of ruffles, is slightly off the shoulder. A long scarf is worn over the right shoulder, this garment being especially particular to Goan mestiza women (although variations appeared among mestizas in Mexico, Batavia and the Philippines at around the same time.) She wears dainty shoes, the toes just visible beneath her long skirt. She stands amid what appears to be a dense tuft of stamens that rise from the lotus petal platform on which she stands.

The container has a silver rim and cap. The cap is lightly engraved with foliage-type motifs in a manner that is consistent with a late seventeenth century dating. A long silver chain joins the cap to the hairpiece of the figure.

The dress and hairpiece of the subject matter, a mestiza woman of Goa, also suggest a probable late seventeenth century dating. The careful, elegant row of double lotus petals at the base of the container particularly marks out the Indian origins of this piece.

Crocodile teeth, like shark teeth, were believed to have talismanic properties in seventeenth century Europe and they were among the exotic items that the Portuguese sought to acquire through their trading posts and colonies such as Goa. Goa became the main market for luxury and artistic goods and a centre for importing items that were produced in areas not under Portuguese control. Goa took on an increasingly cosmopolitan air and bustled with merchants and artisans. Rua Direita was the main commercial street and the centre for the luxury goods trade where curios from the rest of India, porcelain from China, precious stones from Sri Lanka and many other items were bought and sold.

Mestiza and European dress did differ and in some Asian outposts, the differences sometimes were proscribed. Gelman Taylor (2009, p. 28) describes orphanage regulations in Batavia in 1752 which stipulated the clothes allocated to European and Mestiza girls. To European girls was allocated each year two blouses of ordinary bleached cotton; four bodices of Chinese linen; two chintz skirts; two sailor-style kebayas or overblouses; two kebayas of Surat cloth; one Makassar sarong; three handkerchiefs; three pairs of stockings; two pairs of shoes; and two pairs of sandals. Each second year they were permitted one cotton floral frock, and one pair of stays. To Mestiza girls was provided two fine blouses of guinea cloth; one coarse blouse of bleached cloth; three bodices of Chinese linen; two sailor-style kebayas; four fine Bengali head veils; one fine garment of Indian cloth; two handkerchiefs; two pairs of shoes; two pairs of sandals; and three pairs of stockings.

Goa had a fractious history before coming under Portuguese control. It came under the governance of the Delhi Sultanate in 1312. But the Sultanate’s hold over the region was weak. By 1370, the region was surrendered to the Vijayanagara empire. The Vijayanagara monarchs held the territory until 1469, when it fell to the Bahmani sultans of Gulbarga. With the fall of that dynasty, the area fell to the Adil Shahis of Bijapur who established as their auxiliary capital the city known under the Portuguese as Velha Goa. In 1510, the Portuguese defeated the ruling Bijapur kings with the help of a local ally, Timayya. They founded a permanent settlement in Velha Goa (Old Goa). With the Portuguese, came Christianity. From the sixteenth century, Goa which formerly had been a remote province on the periphery of kingdoms, became an eastern trading capital of the Portuguese empire and the seat of Christian imperialism and influence whose influence stretched from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Japan.

The Portuguese expanded their possessions around the region so that by the mid-18th century, the area under occupation included most of Goa’s present- day state limits. In 1843 the capital was moved to Panjim from Velha Goa.

After India gained independence in 1947, Portugal refused to negotiate with India on the transfer of sovereignty of its Indian enclaves. In December 1961, the Indian army annexed Goa and several smaller Portuguese possessions, ending Portugal’s 400 year presence in the Indian sub-continent.

Under the Portuguese, a hybrid, mestizo culture developed among the inhabitants of Goa. Indeed, Goans became the first non-Western people (from 1510) to accept and incorporate European civilisation. (The Mexicans followed in 1519 and the Peruvians in 1533.) Many Goans converted to Christianity. Dress, architecture and the local cuisine all took on syncreatic elements. The Portuguese administration accorded the mestizos equal rights with Europeans. ‘His Majesty [the King of Portugal] does not distinguish between his vassals by their colour but by their merits,’ declared a 1774 decree (Periera, 1995, p. 15). The equal treatment applied to baptised Goans only, thereby helping to foster the mestizo culture.


Filipinas: Puerta de Oriente de Legazpi a Malaspina, Sociedad Estatal para la Accion Cultural Exterior, 2003.

Gelman Taylor, J., The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasians in Colonial Indonesia, 2nd ed., The University of Wisconsin Press, 2009.

Jordan, A. et al, The Heritage of Rauluchantim, Museu de Sao Roque, 1996.

Pereira, J., Baroque Goa, Books & Books, 1995.

Pereira, J., Churches of Goa, Oxford University Press, 2002.

Portugal and the World: In the 16th and 17th Centuries, Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, 2009.

Ritchie, C.I., Ivory Carving, Arthur Baker Limited, 1969.

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